As always, my brain and I have not stopped the great battle against the constant onslaught of books. Our dedication to the fight has kept the terrible mountain of unread books from growing too tall to fall over and murder me in my sleep, but we still have a long way to go before we can reach the dream of a tiny hillock of books waiting for us to devour them. But as happens all too often these days, the life outside of reading steals away any extra time I might have for writing about the struggle of the ongoing war. Still, I am ever hopeful and thus leave the books that have been read in their own separate pile: the mountain of unreported books. And now that mountain has grown to teetering proportions, leading to the terrible situation of two unsteady stacks that could topple over onto me and cause fatal injury at any moment. Something clearly needs to be done. And that something is, of course, writing about the damned books already.
So let’s start with something new and fresh and weird that I read when it first came out months ago. (Yes, the mountain of unreported books goes back that far…) My favourite bookstore did this lovely display where they arranged the books by main cover colour. So there was a shelf of shades of yellow, then green, black, etc. All with the covers facing outward rather than the spines, so you could really take in this strange rainbow. Although it seems like a weird way to showcase books, it was pretty effective. Or at least, it worked on me. I bought three or four books from that display, volumes I would never have found otherwise. Books like Hikaru Cho’s Strange, Funny Love, which was, yes, on the silver shelf. (A surprising number of silver book covers out there!)
You have probably seen Cho’s work already. Not her manga—Strange is her debut collection—but her body paint stuff. I actually did not know that those body-paint illusions were by the author of this book until I looked her up just now. But it makes perfect sense. Although the art in Strange is quite different from the look of those illusions, the themes she picks up on and incorporates into her manga are basically the same, as you might be able to discern from the broken face on the cover of Strange.
Each of the eight stories in this collection are accompanied by a frontispiece that could easily be one of Cho’s body-paint pieces. And each story digs into the surreal to physically manifest emotion and ideas. In “Hiko Shojo”, the titular girl has the somewhat rare “Pleased Flying Syndrome”, which causes her to float up into the air when she is happy or excited in any way. And of course, how high she goes depends on how happy she is. So she wills herself to live a life of rigid monotony, eating only food she dislikes, wearing clothes that bore her, and never, ever falling in love. Because she was taught as a child that something as trivial as love is not worth risking that kind of danger for. What goes up must come down, after all. Literally in this case. But then along comes a guy who’s willing to do what it takes to hold her down. Again literally.
It’s such a great metaphor for the risks we have to take for love and joy in our lives versus the safe confines of constancy. And Cho executes it well, especially a flashback that she wisely devotes a whole page to, where our protagonist is experiencing the sheer delight of her first taste of love.
Most of the stories revolve around love in one way or another, people fumbling forward despite being convinced they are unloveable, like in “Fujun Renai” where the hero has a secret: Her shoulders and back are covered in scales. She might be the most popular girl at school, but she knows they would all turn on her if they found out what a monster she is. And I think this is something that most teenagers have felt at some point and probably more than a few adults. That we are monsters, that no one could ever actually love us. But make that anxiety into an actual “monstrosity” and it’s so much easier to talk about.
Similarly, “Touka no Hi” takes the feeling of invisibility so many of us have experienced, that sense that no one even notices that we’re there so why bother, and turns it into a literal experience, combining it with another often embarrassing experience, a girl’s menstrual cycle. So once a month, girls become “transparent” because of their hormonal cycle. The protagonist, Tanabe, gets a double dose of this transparency because she’s practically invisible in class already. So when her transparent day comes, no one can actually remember who she is. But like all the stories in this collection, the end is happy; she manages to lose her imagined invisibility and carve out a place for herself in the world.
It’s not all high school girls, though. “Time Warp De” focuses on a man in his late twenties unable to get over the hurt of being betrayed by his longtime girlfriend. And then he happens upon a company that promises to “fix the past” with a time warp. They can send him to a past self for a total of three hours to right some mistake that changed the course of a person’s life later. So Mano dives in and heads back to the day when he started going out with his ex-girlfriend to stop himself from ever asking her out to begin with. But along the way, he realizes he could never give up the happiness he shared with her, even if it ends in her breaking his heart.
And “Kumori Nochi Hare” tells the story of a cloud painter who falls in love with a pilot. But he’s not of this world, so this love is doomed to be one-sided. Because he literally paints the clouds in the sky from some kind of god workshop with his assistant, a small talking animal that looks like a cross between a Juliana pig and a dwarf rabbit. “Anpan Dream” examines a scientist’s jealousy toward his more talented colleague while she drags him along to investigate her latest discovery, an enormous anpan. It’s silly as hell, but the voyage to the center of the bean-filled bun leads him to a healthier way of processing his feelings for his colleague.
In a way, the entire book is like an advice column using fantastical parables to instruct readers in boundaries, self-esteem, and all the other troublesome feelings we write to advice columnists about. But it’s also just a fun collection of bizarre premises, the constant question of “what if?” running through every story and Cho just follows where the question takes her. We’re lucky she decided to take us along with her.